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Do you want to play?

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

It is summer in the Northern hemisphere. It’s the traditional time to get outside and be active. To take vacations, swim, relax, and decompress. To visit with friends and family. To hang out and have some fun.

Girl riding bouncy truck in park with hair flying.

It is a great time to remember how most of us spent our summers as kids playing and goofing off. To remember that life isn’t just about work and getting the laundry done. That we shouldn't confine fun times to summer or holidays. Having fun and playing should be part of our lives all the time.

Kids holding hands with older adult.

Play is an important part of life. No matter how old you are, play is vital to maintaining a healthy brain, body, and emotional life. It helps you feel younger and more relaxed. Have you heard about the experimental programs where they put elderly nursing home patients and preschool kids together in a day care program? I’ve seen ridiculously sweet videos showing how the elderly patients learn (or relearn) to play with the kids and, over time, end up showing improvements in their physical and mental health.

There has been a ton of research done on the impact of play on people of all ages. Here are just a few highlights of what play can do:

Reduces stress- Having some fun makes a huge difference in overall stress levels

Increases creativity- Whether you are problem solving or trying to create something new, walking away from it to have fun helps your brain tap into its unconscious creative centers.

Improves productivity- There is a lot of scientific evidence showing that we can only concentrate deeply for a certain amount of time before we need a break. The number I most often see is 90 minutes. That means that every 90 minutes you have an excuse to stop work and do something fun for a few minutes!

Assists with learning- Most of the research deals with kids, particularly in early childhood, but there is also some showing that play is important for adults, especially later in life.

Increases brain function- Studies of older patients show that play can improve memory and brain processing in the short and long term. That’s a lot better than medication!

Connects you with loved ones- Your friends and family are there to support you when life is tough, but they also want to spend some relaxed time with you enjoying the happier moments.

Reminds you of how good life can feel- It can be hard in the midst of life challenges to remember the better times. This is when the advice to “live in the moment” can occasionally backfire. Going out to play, no matter how lousy you feel, can remind you that there is still joy to be found.

Resets your attitude- It’s easy to get stuck in mental and emotional ruts. Play time breaks that cycle and gives your brain a little break from the gloom and doom that might be wearing you down.

So, to sum it up: play is good for you, no matter how old you are.

But just knowing it is good for us doesn't tell us what to DO. What is considered play? Is it just anything you do to relax?

Play is a little hard to define, but we can start by saying that it is anything you do for fun that makes you happy. It’s whatever you do just because you want to, not because you are paid to do it or feel obliged to for some reason. It makes you laugh, forget the time, and leaves you with more energy than before you started. However, I have never seen a researcher consider watching a movie or reading a book as forms of play. There seems to be an element of physical and mental activity involved. Building a LEGO city uses a lot of creativity. Going kayaking is physically active. Board games require mental strategizing and are usually considered play. So maybe we can define play as mentally or physically engaging activities that create fun, joy, and relaxation.

What is play to you may look different than what is play for me. In my world, pretty much anything I do outside is play to me (well, maybe not mowing the lawn). From hiking to puttering around my garden, I spend most of my outdoor time being active because it is fun. For others, play might look like creating movies or building obstacle courses or taking the dog to the beach to throw the frisbee. If you are less mobile then play might be crossword puzzles, riddles, or knitting. Play is individual to you. It will probably change throughout your life. You will, hopefully, always be finding new ways to have carefree fun.

For me, competition takes all the fun out of something and is definitely not play (that’s part of the reason I hate board games and sports). Maybe for others competition enhances the play factor? I’m not really sure. I do know that if you are crying or upset about losing, then the fun of the game has been lost. I definitely see kids who love playing sports but then join a league and end up feeling like it is a chore because they’ve lost the playful feel. The activity contains too much pressure or is too structured. It may still be valuable for other reasons, but kids will still need to find some other play time in their lives.

Which brings us to the unstructured part of play. I think it would be hard to have a highly structured activity be play. There’s a sense of fluidity and spontaneity that is lost once you have over planned what you are doing. Play thrives best without schedules or agendas. Most people know that kids need unstructured time, but do they know that adults need unstructured time as well? Time to just be active, goof off, be creative, and do what feels right at the moment?

Adults playing spikeball.

Another play pitfall I see (especially for parents) is doing something playful for others but neglecting your own play time. Doing something just because it is fun for your kids may not necessarily be fun for you. Obviously, parents do many things to make sure their kids have fun, but they also need to leave time for their own play. Of course, sometimes you may start an activity because it will make someone else happy and then end up enjoying it yourself so much that it becomes play for you too. My nephew gets me to throw the ball with him sometimes. On my own, this is not an activity I particularly enjoy. However, we usually end up having a grand old time coming up with ridiculous trick shots and being silly. So what starts as not-play for me usually turns into play at some point (mostly because throwing a ball around is really boring and I have to be creative to keep myself interested!). Still, it is good to leave time for your own version of play now and then.

Play is important for us all. From the tiniest baby to the oldest nursing home patient, we need play in our lives to bring joy, keep us active, and improve our bodies, minds, and emotions. It is important in all seasons. If you haven’t done much lately that would be considered play, then it is time to get out there and have some fun! If you don’t know what you would consider play, then start hanging out with some kids or tag along with friends doing what they consider to be play. The moment you find something that makes you laugh, lose time, and feel relaxed, then you’ve discovered something new about yourself. If the thought of goofing off or doing something spontaneous makes you stressed or tense, then you need to go find some help. Play is one of the most natural things in the world to do. Feeling like play is a stressor in your life or that it is unnatural for some reason is a sign that you have blocked off some very important parts of yourself. Get some help rediscovering what you are missing.

Whether you are totally unfamiliar with play or simply haven't done it in a while, it is an important part of your life you cannot ignore. Play comes with a host of benefits, but most importantly it reconnects you with the most authentic part of yourself. Take some time this week to have fun and find some playful things to do. As you do, you will open a doorway toward health and healing that you may not have found any other way.

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